"I have two, if not three cameras on me. I use whichever one makes the most sense. I like to think that the way I see photography is 'past' the image. Somehow what I do is about taking the image for granted, and a lot of what I do is about the idea behind the image or the medium itself."
The speaker is photographer Ruvan Wijesooriya. He is in Gothenburg, Sweden, where the New York-based artist has just opened a second exhibition of his work. But this exhibition, held in a warehouse space, is unconventional. In a cross-Atlantic telephone conversation, Ruvan explains.
"These friends of mine do an illegal warehouse party. They invited me to do a show, showcasing new work and my old work that has to do with music." One thousand unique pictures, taken in the last two years, make up the exhibition.
"My style is based on my reaction to styles that existed before me. I pause, and my style is that I like to float between different styles and base my style on what's in front of me. Instead of inserting who I am or what I am I use different styles to describe other people.
"Since I was a kid, music always influenced me. When I take photos of music, I want to make pictures that describe the music or the look of the artist.
"With fashion, it's the same thing. I want to understand the subject matter and try to create understanding as best I can.” Portrait photography and fashion photography have different requirements, but Ruvan’s work still has the same vitality as his live or candid shots. It’s all about the energy between eye, camera lens, and subject, the electric space between what he is trying to capture in a box.
"I haven't done that many shows on a large scale. And these are the least commercial shows that I've done. I've encouraged the audience to install the show as well. That way I can let go, which is a pretty interesting feeling. It's chaotic but it's liberating."
He explains that the first year of his show resulted in total chaos, with visitors not sure that they were supposed to place, pose and even take home his photographs. "I give it up and let them do as they want with it. This year, there were more people who'd been there the year before and they knew what to do. They were moving pictures around to where they thought it would look best."
Giving the audience spontaneity and the privilege of participation in the installation ties back to Ruvan's early punk rock aesthetic. He started with heavy metal but moved on into punk when he discovered aggressive music like The Misfits, the seminal New Jersey band formed by Glenn Danzig. His interest in punk and skateboarding led to the start of a writing career, and then a plane trip changed his life.
"It was in November of '99––no, '98," he recalls. "I met a fashion stylist who was doing a lot of music stuff. We were in the next seats and we got along. She was working with Nine Inch Nails, with Garbage, and with Marilyn Manson. I guess she was impressed that I knew those aesthetics. I had my own skateboard company at the time and I was self-motivated.
"I started assisting her as an on-set stylist and a screenwriter, helping her write a screenplay. I started writing about skateboarding and music writing, mainly rock and roll, writing about alternative bands in New York."
Ruvan was already doing the photography for those pieces, shooting gigs and shooting musicians. "My fashion designer friends quit their jobs and started their own things. And I realized that I could do that and that there were things I could do better than write."
With the problems in the press and the magazine industry, Ruvan believes that books are the way that his images will be best experienced. His first, All Night New York, started after his meeting with the artist Chuck Close.
"I met Chuck Close, the painter, and all these other artists. I'd just started taking pictures and he was one of my first portraits. He was talking to me about color theory. Everyone said to me 'Shoot what you know and shoot what you're comfortable with.' So I went out and shot black and white film in clubs in New York for a year.
"When I took those pictures, I didn't know who the people in them were. Now they've become people I know and people I work with. The whole photo blog thing was happening around then. I wasn't interested in that. Wasn't interested in digital photography.
"I wasn't interested in who everyone was. It was the moment. The actions. The proxemic, rather than taking a picture of some girl or some celebrity or someone on the dance floor.
"When I shoot, I shoot ninety percent of my work on film." He doesn’t like digital photography because as he puts it, "You lose the magic."
Part of the problem with digital photography is that digital images are divided into a series of small pixels, or bits of data. Photographs, on the other hand, are a more organic form. If you blow up a digital image, eventually you will get nothing more than a series of pixilated lines. However, a printed photograph, taken from a film, can have much more detail and be richer in its subtlety and texture.
He continues, "I don't know how many professional-grade digital cameras there are, but they all have the same kind of output. If I need it to look 'perfect' I might shoot it in digital, but it's not as interesting or as fun as using film. I get commercial clients who want me to use digital photography––and then they say 'make it look like film.' "
He puts it bluntly: "The suspense doesn't exist. I guess I can do it better with a digital camera. I can shoot it better." He explains that it's easier to lock an image down and then fiddle with it afterwards. But he still prefers not to use it. "If I'm doing advertising I might shoot on digital, but film allows me to be more spontaneous. I can't really lose myself in digital. My imagination and spontaneity don't work the same way."
Ruvan takes a different approach depending on which musicians are in front of his lens. "I guess it depends on if it's going to be associated with the actual artist. If it's more of an art album cover, I'd want to see it a certain way."
He is sometimes unconventional with his choice of film stocks. "I had friends who played a show in London and wanted me to come take pictures. I shot them with black-and-white film that was expired for a couple of years. The photos came out gross and washed-out, and they looked great."
For Ruvan, photography is all about working with film stock, even in this age of digital cameras. He is a great believer in the organic, analog quality of light hitting film, of fixing the moment in a bath of chemicals and creating art that lives on photographic paper.
"I've been using the same lab and the same printer for five years. I've been shooting for seven and I've been using the same lab for five." Ruvan explained that he does not involve himself in the development process with chemicals, fixer, and toner. He trusts his lab. "I know they're going to have the generic commercial stock that I need."